Contact tracing: One OS update to rule them all

Published on the 08/05/2020 | Written by Heather Wright


John Edwards Privacy commissioner

Apple, Google API provides ‘enormous boost’ for tracing…

While Australia’s CovidSafe contact tracing app has got off to a roaring start, with more than 5.2 million downloads by Wednesday, New Zealand’s privacy commissioner believes a number of different solutions and options will be needed as countries look to ease restrictions and return to ‘normal’ life – but a planned Google/Apple API holds great potential.

Experts vary in their opinion of how much of a population needs to be signed up to an app in order for it to be of real benefit in contact tracing, with 40 percent and 60 percent or upwards often cited.

That’s proving problematic in many countries and has been used as a key argument against New Zealand’s rollout of any tech offering.

Once the user has installed the OS update and opted in, it will send out and listen for Bluetooth, without requiring an app to be installed.

John Edwards (pictured) told the New Zealand Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee that there wouldn’t be ‘one big hit’ to solve the issue of tracing everyone potentially in contact with Covid carriers.

He says that Singapore’s much touted app, which has two million downloads and was initially regarded as the gold standard for contact tracing apps, has only allowed an extra six people to be traced.

One area Edwards did seem enthused about was Apple and Google’s joint contact tracing API, currently being developed. He says when it becomes available it will be ‘an enormous boost’.

The tech giants have released sample code, UI and policy information for their Covid tracing technology (though they use the term ‘exposure notification’ rather than contact tracing), which will ban the use of location tracking. The Exposure Notification API aims to provide a cross platform means of notifying individuals about potential exposure to confirmed Covid infections.

The first iteration, due this month, will see both companies provide APIs that enable contact tracing apps from public health authorities to work across both Android and iOS devices. The apps from public health authorities would need first to be downloaded – and in New Zealand’s case to actually be available – and users would need to consent to the terms and conditions before the program is active.

Eighty-one percent of Kiwis have a smartphone, most of which can use Bluetooth.

The second, more interesting, phase, due ‘in the coming months’ will see the capability introduced at the operating system level. It will come via an operating system update. Once the user has installed and opted in, it will send out and listen for Bluetooth beacons just as it does in the earlier API phase, but in this case, without requiring an app to be installed. If a match is detected the user will be notified and prompted to download an official app if they don’t already have one.

“Only public health authorities will have access to this technology and their apps must meet specific criteria around privacy, security and data control.” (That criteria has already made the app being developed for the UK incompatible with the Google/Apple API. In the UK, data is being collected in a central NHS database, with the UK government apparently not ruling out sharing data with other organisations for public health research in future.)

“We see one big decision point is whether the applications, or hardware, should communicate to a central database to assist contact tracers, or be decentralised and retain information only on a device,” Edwards says.

“One thing I would urge the committee in its oversight role is to ensure the conversation about the options does not get prematurely narrowed to one preferred option,” he says.

“Each offering has different merits in terms of uptake, privacy protection and most importantly, efficacy in public health response.”

Card carrying
Edwards cast some doubt on the CovidCard saying any response needs to be proportional and practical and noting that ‘giving five million people a piece of plastic that will record every interaction they have… you might consider on examination is disproportionate’.

The phone free option which has been under consideration in New Zealand, is a credit-card sized Bluetooth enabled device, with a private sector proposal for five million of the cards to be distributed.

National MP Stuart Smith likened the CovidCard to electronic bracelets to monitor offenders on parole.

Edwards, meanwhile, says he’s advised the CovidCard developers that their offering would beneft from a privacy impact assessment.

He notes the card was designed to solve the issues of tracing for those without mobile phones and also the variability of Bluetooth signals across devices – something that can lead to apps picking up false close contacts, such as people standing six metres away or on the other side of a wall, ultimately adding to the workload for the human contact tracers required to follow up any data provided by apps.

“I understand that the CovidCard was being developed to resolve that inconsistency problem, but that was prior to the issuing of the joint Apple, Google API. Those engineers [at Apple and Google] have identified that hardware variability and are, I think, building into their software a response to that,” Edwards says.

While Australia rolled out its CovidSafe app nearly two weeks ago, New Zealand’s plans are far more sketchy.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised nearly two weeks ago that an app to supplement current contact tracing would be available in two weeks, albeit in very limited form – essentially just providing updated contact information for the Ministry of Health.

Earlier today, however, in announcing to New Zealanders what life under Level 2 will look like, plans for any technological solution still seemed far away, with the only mention of possible contact tracing offerings being around ones businesses could deploy to track customers and patrons visiting their stores or venues.

“We’re working on a nationwide technological fix to make it easier for businesses to record who comes into their premises and this is likely to include QR codes. But in the meantime, manual will be used,” Ardern said.

Edwards says the idea of updating contact details is ‘great’ – and much needed. He says his early briefings with the Ministry of Health revealed one of their first problems was that the Ministry of Health systems weren’t up to date.

“If you go in and say you’ve been diagnosed with Covid and here are 10 people you’ve been in touch with in the last two weeks, they will only have contact details for six of those people. It’s getting to the extra four that’s the issue.”

However, he questions why the government is building an app to update details rather than giving the team at the contact tracing centre access to people at other agencies, who might be able to provide contact details for Kiwis.

“We have to be very careful about looking for a technological panacea when there may other structural, procedural, legal ways we can assist contact tracing  function,” he says.

“Normally you would not expect health to have access to information from Inland Revenue or Ministry of Social Development, but in time of crisis the legal framework provides for that.

“That is a proportional practical response that helps those people. There is a privacy diminution, but it is proportional and goes right to the problem.”

He stressed that no details would be passed to any other agency, it would simply be a case of using other agencies as a source to locate contacts.

Edwards says he’s troubled by a lack of ‘a sufficient voice’ from the public health officials in the technology conversation, though acknowledges that’s understandable as they are consumed with the immediate health crisis and any technology solution will take some development.

He says there could be better co-ordination among the government, with some ‘fragmenting and splintering’ seen.

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